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Volume 114: debated on Thursday 9 April 1987

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Mr. Lightbown]

11.5 pm

Profit before people — that is what the Government believe in and that is what the Secretary of State believes in when he approves the British Coal planning application for the High Lane opencast site in my constituency. I was brought up in south Wales and saw the devastation to the environment, the total disregard for the living conditions of the workers and the greed for profit of the coal and iron masters. I learnt to despise the Tories for their arrogance and avarice. I watched the workers struggle, through the Labour and trade union movement, to better living and working conditions and to gain for themselves rights to have a say.

What has happened to those rights? They have become the farce of planning inquiries, where people who have forgotten the struggle of the workers for better living conditions have become the lackeys of the Tory Government in their bid for self-importance. They have become people who think that dirt, dust, noise and a view of industrial coal heaps are good enough for working people, and that opencast mining of 585 acres in the heart of my constituency is "in the public interest".

Whose public interest? It is not in the public interest of the people of the borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme. It is not in the interest of 13,000 people who live within about half a mile of the opencast site. It is not in the interest of several hundred homes within a few hundred feet of the site. It is not in the interest of the people of Knutton, of Chesterton, of Silverdale, of Alsagers Bank, of High Lane and of Scot Hay, whose homes encircle the site. Nor is it in the interest of children, yet unborn, on Parksite estate whose fathers work in Silverdale pit, and who will grow up knowing only a view of a massive industrial void from their living room windows.

That void was described by the inspector as
"a significant landscape feature which would endure for a long time".
It will be significant with a surface area of 44 acres and a depth of 65 yards at its deepest point. Twenty years is a long time to have taken from one a pleasant view of green fields and hedges and to know only industrial waste.

These roads and villages already suffer from heavy lorries, noise, dust and industrial workings, of which my constituency has more than its fair share. Silverdale deep mine and Holditch deep mine, which has a dirt mound, both give noise and dust problems. There are two private licensed mines. There is marl extraction at Cemetery road, at Knutton lane and at Bradwell wood. The Bates wood opencast site covers 370 acres. The Red street opencast site of 132 acres dominates the miners' estate at Chesterton, with workings right up to the garden fences of many houses. That is an estate already suffering from the resultant problem of the sale of houses by British Coal, with structural problems and with landlord problems, and it is further devastated by the discovery that some of the houses have been built on red ash.

The Government encouraged people to buy their own homes. Even the inspector recognised that the people would have some difficulty and suffer financially if they wished to sell their homes. It is hard luck if people try to do what the Government say—get on their bikes to find a job. Who would buy a house when they read in the inspector's report:
"Top soil stripping and construction of baffle mounds, will be exempt from noise limitations, and would entail a considerable noise nuisance and represent an undesirable erosion of the quality of the residential environment."?
Who would buy a house in Black Bank road or the Cheviot close area? They will be only 33 ft and 25 ft away from 200,000 cu m of overburdened mound reaching to a height of 98 ft.

However, help is at hand. The inquiry proposed a baffle mound at the Cheviot close area to help with the noise problem. Even so, the inquiry accepts that it will not be of much help. In any case, it will involve a visual intrusion problem. If that is not enough, there will be a dust problem. The prevailing westerly winds will most seriously affect the Cheviot close area. In case the Minister thinks that that is just a row of houses, I should say that it is not. It is a large estate of houses which knits in closely with the village of Knutton which is an area of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The other area most seriously affected will be Loomer road, east of the over-burdened mounds. That is on the road on which the site traffic will be travelling. It has about 800 houses along its length.

There was no dispute at the inquiry that the dust could be controlled because of the elevation of the site and the prevailing winds. There was no dispute that noise levels would increase substantially or that blasting would be found unpleasant. However, let us not forget the lorries. The site access at Loomer road will have an estimated extra 98 vehicles a day — 196 movements — for eight years. The people of Loomer road already have an industrial estate along one side of the road. There will be coal haulage lorries at the rate of 120 lorries a day—240 movements a day—with access on to the A34, the main road through Newcastle-under-Lyme. Thank goodness we have half-day working on a Saturday.

What about the loss of amenities? It was agreed at the inquiry that only 54 acres of the main site could be considered as derelict and in need of treatment. As for the rest of the area, part of the conservation area of woodland at Watermills wood would be lost. The Great Row nature reserve would suffer from the proximity of the intensive operational area. All but seven hectares of the natural revegetated or "wild" areas would be lost and the wildlife driven out. There is a rich and varied animal life. There are 20 species of butterfly, nine species of dragonfly, and a variety of birds, including the relatively rare stonechat and grasshopper warbler. There are mammals, including badgers, and bats, as well as adders and lizards. They will all be driven out in this opencast madness. Twenty seven rights of way will be lost, as will 47 acres of public open space, 68 acres of woodland and miles of hedgerow. The amenity pool at Knutton will be lost and thousands of children living in the area will lose the use of the land for recreation.

In reply to my question in the House on 1 April, the Minister, with his supposed care for the countryside, said that it was a case of
"NIMBY—not in my back yard."—[Official Report, 1 April 1987; Vol. 113, c. 1094.]
I challenge the Minister to accept such devastation in his back yard or even in his front garden as it will be for many of my constituents. All of that for 100 jobs in eight years, and many of those not new jobs. Would his constituents, or he, say that the cost of such devastation was too high a price to pay?

I shall deal with the need for opencast coal. A lot of nonsense has been talked about this opencast site being needed to mix in order to lower the chlorine content of the coal for the power stations. The inspector accepted that there were various other options to meet the demand of the Central Electricity Generating Board for low chlorine coal. Those options were not seriously disputed by British Coal. Indeed, given that the average chlorine content for deep mined coal in the United Kingdom is 0·28 per cent., and that suitable deep mined coal is being mined in nearby Warwickshire, there are other options.

In addition, national stocks of coal at pitheads have risen to 12 million tonnes in the last 12 months. Failure to use those stockpiles could result in further colliery closures, which is what this Government are truly aiming at.

Even the inspector, in granting permission, said:
"The argument on need has in my opinion been overstated."
He considered that it was perhaps based on the Government's policy for the cheaper open cast coal, but he was at a loss to know whether the policy implied an expansion, nationally or locally, of the historic levels of opencast production. The inspector drew the conclusion that there was an abandonment of a national target and a reliance on market forces. A typical Tory policy: greed, not need.

Despite the devastation that this opencast mining would cause, the Secretary of State agreed on 31 March that it should go ahead. That should be contrasted with the Minister's words on 23 February on the Streets Lane site also in Staffordshire, when he reduced the size of that site from 520 acres to 395 acres. He said:
"The Secretary of State takes the view that the case presents the need to strike a difficult balance between the need for the coal, and protection of the local community and its amenities."
In reducing the size of the site, he considered
"that this would distance the dwellings in Upper Norwood village, and at the end of Cheslyn Hay from the noise and dust associated with this development—as it would from the `smallholding', and it would obviate the need for Upper Ladywood lane to be diverted. It would also lessen the nuisance associated with the construction of over-burden mounds. In these particular circumstances, the Secretary of State regards these advantages as compelling and as outweighing the loss of coal necessitated by the reduced area of extraction."
What a contrast that presents to the Secretary of State's views on the Highlane opencast site, with its over-burden mound standing 98 ft high and covering 74 acres, with the 16 ft high boundary baffle mounds, with its destruction of a hamlet of eight houses, and its diverting of Black Bank road. What happened to his concern for the environment and for the people between 23 February and 31 March? The answer is: nothing happened. The only difference is that Newcastle-under-Lyme has a Labour Member of Parliament, and the Streets Lane site has a Tory Member of Parliament.

The Government have no real concern for people; they do not listen to what they have to say; and they have no real concern for the environment. This was a matter of buying votes. When it is a case of buying Tory votes then it is different.

In the case of the loyal and ancient borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme with its 800-year-old charter, this Government put profit before people. As the Secretary of State is too ashamed to appear himself, can the Minister tell me—can the Minister tell the House—when the rape of my constituency by this Tory Government will cease?

11.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Richard Tracey)

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) made a powerful but rather prickly speech, but I congratulate her on the speed with which she has managed to raise this matter in the House. The decision on the High lane site was issued on 31 March, and, as the hon. Lady said, she raised the matter with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, Countryside and Planning at Question Time on 1 April, and now we are having an Adjournment debate upon it—all in the space of 10 days.

I am sure that the House will appreciate that I am unable to comment on the merits of a particular planning decision. Once a decision has been given on an appeal or called-in application, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has no further jurisdiction in the matter, and he cannot reopen it to consider any further representations or complaints that he may receive. Any person who is aggrieved by a decision on appeal and wishes to question the validity of the decision may make an application to the High Court within six weeks from the date of the decision. The decision on the High lane site was made only 10 days ago, so it would be doubly inappropriate for me to make any comment on the merits.

However, as we have heard, the hon. Lady is concerned primarily with opencast coal sites in her constituency and the effect that they have. I hope that in the time that is available to me I can offer some general reassurance.

There are two British Coal opencast sites currently in operation in the hon. Lady's constituency. Both of them were authorised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy under the Opencast Coal Act 1958. Red street was authorised in July 1981 and Bateswood North in June 1982. Both sites are nearing the end of their productive life. I understand that Red street is expected to finish coaling soon and that Bateswood North is expected to finish in about 1990. Once operations are completed, the land will be restored by British Coal under the terms of its authorisations.

I can appreciate, however, the hon. Lady's concern. I think that we all accept that opencast coal mining is an intrusive operation. It can cause considerable environmental damage while it is being carried out and consequently it arouses a good deal of local controversy. But opencasting produces a cheap and profitable good quality fuel, which is important to the nation's economy and the financial viability of the British Coal Corporation. It is crucial, therefore, that we should seek to strike the right balance between the nation's interest in exploiting this mineral resource and that of protecting our environment.

It may help to demonstrate how we are seeking to achieve this if I explain the policy background against which individual decisions are taken on their merits. As I have said, prior to 1 April 1984, British Coal did not apply for planning permission for proposals to work coal by opencast methods. Instead it applied to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy for authorisation under section 1 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958. When granting authorisation, my right hon. Friend also gave deemed planning permission for the development under section 2 of the 1958 Act.

The Commission on Energy and the Environment in its report entitled "Coal and the Environment" in May 1983 recognised that consideration of opencast proposals should properly rest with mineral planning authorities in the same way as any other development proposals. The Government accepted this in their White Paper of the same name. We therefore introduced transitional arrangements on 1 March 1984 by the Department of the Environment circular 3/84, under which, instead of applying to the Secretary of State for Energy for authorisation, British Coal applies for planning permission to the appropriate mineral planning authority.

However, while the relevant provisions of the 1958 Act remain on the statute book, British Coal still requires authorisation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, to whom responsibility for giving authorisation was administratively transferred. This now superfluous administrative operation will be removed on the commencement of part V of the Housing and Planning Act 1986. British Coal's opencast operations will then be brought fully within the ambit of the land use planning system.

The Commission on Energy and the Environment also recommended that the level of opencast production should be allowed to decline as new and more profitable deep mines were brought on stream, and recommended the adoption of a series of guidelines that would confine opencast extraction to sites where coal would otherwise be sterilised by built development; where the site could be environmentally improved by coaling and subsequent restoration, or where other environmental benefits could be obtained; where there was a demonstrable need for a certain grade of coal for blending, or specialised needs that could not be met by deep mines; or to supply demonstrable short-term increases on demand which deep mine production was too inflexible to satisfy.

However, the commission recognised the need to take account of the overall economic benefit to the nation of opencast production. DOE circular 3/84 therefore advised that each project should be considered in terms of the market requirement for its planned output—taking into account the alternative sources of supply, including deep-mine coal—as well as the environmental, agricultural and other planning considerations. It suggested that proposals should be examined against the following considerations, in no particular order of significance: first, the extent to which the coal would otherwise be sterilised by built development; secondly, the extent to which the site could be environmentally improved in the longer term by coal extraction and subsequent restoration; thirdly, the extent to which the proposal would facilitate the comprehensive working of the coal deposits of an area in an efficient and environmentally satisfactory manner; and, finally, the extent to which the extraction of coal from a site would facilitate the efficient and economic working of other mineral deposits on that site.

In practice, there has been considerable difficulty in interpreting what constitutes "market requirement" for an individual site in relation to an internationally traded commodity. That, in part, has led to disputes and delays in dealing with planning applications. We are therefore taking the opportunity that will arise on repeal of the redundant authorisation requirements in the Opencast Coal Act 1958 to revise and strengthen the guidelines for opencast coal operations. Yesterday we issued a draft circular for public consultation, which seeks to set a balanced framework against which individual proposals can be examined.

The draft circular drops the reference to market requirement, and applicants will no longer have to provide a justification for the specific need for the coal. I must stress that it is not a free-for-all; indeed, under our proposals, the crucial test of an opencast coal application will be whether the mineral can be extracted in an environmentally acceptable way. It will be for the industry to decide the level of production that it wishes to aim for, but for mineral planning authorities to determine the acceptability of individual proposals.

The draft circular sets out the national policy considerations, both economic and environmental, that planning authorities will need to take account of when determining individual applications. Opencast coal can be produced cheaply and profitably, and can make a substantial contribution to British Coal's progress towards break-even and its subsequent progress towards self-financing and a satisfactory rate of return on capital. However, the draft emphasises that, whilst recognising the importance of opencast coal, the Government are firmly committed to the protection of the environment; and that environmental controls are therefore vital to the acceptability of opencast working, and must be adhered to if sites are to meet current environmental standards. As for all minerals, proposals for new opencast workings or extensions of existing workings affecting National Parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, sites of special scientific interest and national nature reserves must be subject to the most rigorous examination.

The draft circular also gives specific advice on the handling of opencast coal proposals. The industry is encouraged to explain fully and as early as possible the nature of its proposals, indicating the ways in which it intends to deal with the environmental factors that will arise. Where large sites or sites that may be worked over many years are proposed, the industry is encouraged to discuss its proposals at an early stage with the local community, by arranging, for example, public meetings and exhibitions. The draft stresses the desirability of using environmental assessment techniques appropriate to the scale of the development and the sensitivity of the area. We also propose to retain the considerations set out in the existing circular.

We will also emphasise that a positive approach should be taken where opencasting would help clear dereliction or secure the early release of former colliery sites for reclamation. Particular emphasis too is given to the importance of proper restoration and after-care of sites to a subsequent beneficial use and the need for the principles of restoration to be clearly settled at the time planning permission is granted.

We believe that these proposals taken together strike the right balance between the needs of industry and the economy to develop these important mineral resources and the nation's interest in the protection of the environment. It must be right for industry to make its own investment decisions appropriate to its financial objectives, and for mineral planning authorities to determine the acceptability of individual projects through the land use planning system.

It is a fact of life that minerals can only be worked where they are found, and opencast coal is no exception. The acceptability of opencast coal working will depend in part on the likely environmental impact of the proposals and on the steps to be taken by the developer to minimise those effects. The draft circular makes it clear that the visual intrusions of a site—the effects of dust, noise and vibration from blasting and heavy traffic movements—are all material considerations. These can be reduced by the careful planning of operations, including the siting of boundaries and baffle banks, limiting the height of overburden heaps and moving away from residential areas quickly.

There will be cases where the environmental effects taken together add up to such a severe diminution in the quality of life for a locality that the development should not proceed.

We hope that the draft guidelines published yesterday will provide mineral planning authorities with the right framework and advice to help them to solve the conflicting pressures which inevitably arise in considering particular development proposals.

I recognise that the hon. Lady will be disappointed that I am unable to discuss the merits of particular planning decisions, including the one affecting her constituency. Nevertheless, I hope that what I have said will help to explain the background against which these decisions are taken and our proposals for the way forward. I hope that she will feel reassured that environmental considerations figure large in my right hon. Friend's consideration of matters that come before him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.